A reader writes:
This question veers a bit into personal life territory, but I was wondering if you had any advice you could share anyway. I have a young relative who has limited parental guidance and appears to be developing some horrible workplace habits. She has never appeared to take work very seriously, but since her employment history was mostly summer jobs, it was hard to tell.
Since she graduated from college almost a year ago, though, she’s been sounding like a parody version of a the media’s version of an irresponsible millennial. She got a prestigious paid internship through family connections, only to announce almost immediately that it was horrible because “they didn’t give me an office with a window,” “I can’t handle fluorescent lighting,” “the work doesn’t match my self identity,” and that she found any more mundane tasks they gave her insulting. She ended up breaking her contract four months in. She believes she left on a good note, but the family member who referred her confirms otherwise. She’s taking six months off now to “recover” before she looks for work again.
To be clear, I work with interns at my workplace all the time. I know this isn’t typical age or generational behavior. She seems to really think workplaces exist entirely to fulfill her needs and seems to have no clue that these relationships are not friendships. I’m worried that not only is she not going totally tank her prospects for the future, but also that she’s going to alienate her family members (myself included!) who have had to work hard at far worse jobs to get where we are. To complicate matters further, due to an insurance settlement, she actually has enough of a nest egg to make financial pressures nonexistent for at least five years.
In the workplace, the necessity of these conversations is normally pretty clear. In my personal life, however, I’m totally at a loss how to approach this or even if I should. We have a pretty good relationship otherwise, so I’d like to try to say something. How would you go about explaining basic workplace norms to someone who doesn’t seem to have grasped them?
I think you get one shot at this, and during that one shot, you can be pretty blunt, assuming the relationship is reasonably close.
I’d say this: “Hey, I want to talk to you about something that I’ve noticed. I’m only going to bring this up once and won’t keep hassling you after this, but I care about you too much not to say something. I think you’re smart and talented and could have a career that makes you really happy in the long-term, but I’m worried that you’re making decisions right now that will make that harder and harder to achieve. You’ve said things to me that sound like you have expectations for jobs that aren’t in line with the reality of most jobs, especially early in your career. For example, not having a window is pretty normal! Fluorescent lighting is going to be in almost any office you work in. And lots of jobs when you’re starting out are going to include mundane tasks. The only way you get to a point in your career where you can be pickier about this stuff is by digging in and doing the work that’s available to you now — and building a reputation for being reliable, driven, and easy to work with. When you do that for long enough, you’ll get to a point where you’ll have a strong reputation and can be more selective about what jobs you accept.
“You’ve got an unusual financial situation right now that can feel like it gives you more options than most people your age. But it might be doing you a disservice if it’s leading you to reject or quit jobs that you’d feel more obligated to stay in if you had more typical financial pressures. At whatever point that money runs out, you don’t want to find yourself in a position where you’re not a strong job candidate because you haven’t worked much, or have quit jobs quickly, or just haven’t built up the persevering-through-work muscle that your peers will have built during that time. Employers in five years are going to look at what you’ve been doing since graduating from college, and to get the jobs you want then, you’re going to need to have built up a good history.
“I want to see you set yourself up for a work life that will make you happy long-term, not just in the present, and I’m worried that the way you’re approaching it now is going to make that harder for you down the road.”
Will that message get through? Maybe. Maybe not. If she’s a basically decent but naive person, probably somewhere in between. But that part is out of your control. All you can really do is deliver the message; what she does with it is up to her.
After that, though, I think you’ll need to resign yourself to just watching from the sidelines; talking to her about this stuff once is kind, but pointing it out repeatedly is just going to be annoying, and also probably wasted on her. However, you could certainly make it clear that you’re available if she ever does want a sounding board.
Also, urge that family member who got her that internship and knows that she burned a bridge there to tell her that. Letting her think that she left that job on good terms is doing her no favors, and is actually helping to enable her currently wonky world view.